Belgian refugees in Shropshire
During refugee week, we look back 100 years ago, when Shropshire welcomed a large influx of refugees. After Germany invaded and occupied Belgium at the start of the First World War, many hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced and fled to the coastal ports. The plight of Belgian refugees, and atrocities by the invading army, were widely reported in the press and there was great sympathy for the Belgian people. It is thought that up to 250,000 were given refuge in the UK.
Shropshire played a surprisingly large part in the national support effort as volunteers discovered while transcribing editions of the Wellington Journal.
As early as 19th September 1914 preparations were well underway.
“Shrewsbury and Belgian Refugees – Arriving next Thursday, committee decided to place about 50 in the Armoury which is to be fitted up as hostel. Appeal for loan of 50 beds, bedding, curtains, tables, toilet ware, kitchen utensils, crockery, strips of carpet and food.” Wellington Journal 19 Sept 1914 [p4]
The appeal was evidently successful as this photograph shows.
This accommodation was soon needed, and other similar hostels were established around the county. This report from the Wellington Journal is typical, and shows the level of support and organisation which was undertaken:
“A party of eleven refugees arrived at Baschurch on Wednesday. They have been placed in a large cottage at Eyton, kindly lent by Miss Wild. The cottage has been furnished entirely through the kindness of the ladies of the parish, presided over by Mrs Rowland Hunt, senior. Twenty four ladies and gentlemen have made themselves responsible for feeding and clothing the party. Mrs. Dawson is the Treasurer. Eight of the party are children.” Wellington Journal 3 Oct 1914 [p12]
Later in October a group of 40 refugees arrived in Wellington and the Wellington Journal reported some of the hardships they had endured,
“The sufferings of the Belgians is more fully realised when one has the privilege of chatting with some of the refugees… The hardest case seems to be that of a family named Francis of Wespelain situate on the main road to Louvain. Out of this one family there are four children missing, and it is a cause of great distress to Francis and his wife that no news is as yet to hand concerning their whereabouts. When the Germans arrived at their small holding they confiscated the whole homestead, including the cattle. By this blow the family lost their all, and can only find consolation in the fact of their present personal safety in England with their two little boys, aged six and four.” Wellington Journal 24 October 1914
It is not uncommon for refugee families to be separated in the chaos of war and there would have been many other instances. Part of the work undertaken by local support committees was to try to track people down and establish contact. One such case with a happy outcome was reported in February 1915 when the Atcham Belgian Relief Committee re-united a Belgian soldier (who had been taken in by Habberly parish) with his wife and child at Shrewsbury Station.
The astonishing task of supporting the refugees was largely carried out by volunteers, the majority of whom were women. A constant round of fundraising events were organized, subscriptions were raised and collected, efforts were made to find jobs for the refugees and more permanent homes for them to live in. Some assisted as translators and others helped the refugees to learn English. This photograph shows the volunteers who worked to establish the Armoury Hostel; unfortunately, the group is not named.
However, within the records of the Shropshire War Agricultural Committee, Shropshire Archives ref. SCC1/B/129, there is a copy of a list of women active in the relief of refugees that was sent to London at the request of the War Refugee Committee. It is an interesting list as it shows the number of women involved (although in a time before women were able to vote, they are somewhat defined by the occupation or rank of their husbands). It reads as follows:
11th July 1917
Dear Mr Tudor Owen,
All of the undersigned took a real active part in arranging for the housing and maintenance of Refugees and subsequently in many cases found employment for the people:-
- The Hon. Mrs Sylvester Horne, Sandford House, Church Stretton. Daughter of Master of the Rolls and widow of the Revd Sylvester Horne, Dissenting Minister and Radical MP.
- Mrs L Carey, The Square, Church Stretton. Wife of a Draper.
- Mrs P G Holder, Corfton Hall, Craven Arms. Wife of a retired Solicitor who farms on a large scale. Managed and financed two homes out of her own pocket.
- Mayoress of Ludlow, Mrs S H Valentine, Broad Street, Ludlow. Husband is a Draper
- .Mrs E T Evans, Mill Street, Ludlow. Ex-Mayoress of Ludlow. Husband is a Draper.
- Mrs Hilda Margaret Heane, Newport, Salop. Widow of Solicitor. Was most prominent in providing for some 32 Refugees and supervised all the arrangements.
- Miss Margaretta Dawson, Station Road, Newport. Most active in collection of Funds, about £900, I think.
- Mrs Van De Pol, Port Hill Gardens, Shrewsbury. Wife of Forman Manager at Tobacco Factory. Rendered most valuable services in looking after a large number of Refugees – Her husband is a Belgian.
- Miss Parsons Smith, Abbots-mead, Sutton Road, Shrewsbury. Independent lady who gave much time and attention.
- Mrs F H Harries, Kingsland, Shrewsbury. Wife of a Saddler who is acting as Hon. Head Constable of Shrewsbury Borough. Was most assiduous in fixing up a fairly large Hostel and subsequently finding employment for many.
- Mrs J T Williams, Haygate Road, Wellington. Wife of a Brewer and active as Hon. Treasurer of Local Fund.
- Mrs E T Morgan, Crescent Road, Wellington
- Miss Rose Eyton, Clock House, Admaston. Independent – Active in collecting money.
- Miss M H Ridley, Hill Crest, Leegomery Road, Wellington. Took prominent part in supervising the homes. Independent lady.
- Mrs J V Lander, Bradley Moor, Wellington. Solicitor’s wife who did the secretarial work.
- The Hon. Mrs Harding, Old Springs, Market Drayton. Took the lead throughout in management of a Hostel, the rent of which she herself paid.
- Mrs Joseph Simpson, Woodlands, Horsehay, Salop. Wife of Director of Engineering Works. Acted as Secretary of District Committee, Had 29 Refugees.
- Miss Emma Weever, Noble Street, Wem. Independent lady.
- Miss H G Tomlins, High Street, Wem. Grocer and Confectioner.
- Miss H P Davies, New Street, Wem. Independent lady.
- Mrs Ormer Edwards, Bella Vista, Bridgnorth. Independent lady. Was most active, and, moreover, useful as an interpreter.
- Mrs F S Wilson, Lloyds Bank, Bridgnorth. Wife of Bank Manager. Acted as Housekeeper.
- Miss Nesta Lewis, TY Maen, Oswestry. Daughter of Doctor.
- Miss Drew, Plas Wilmot, Oswestry. Daughter of Mineral Water Manufacturer
- Mrs W H Thomas, Croeswylan, Oswestry. Wife of Contractor.Mrs Frances G Hall, Hodnet. Wife of Doctor. Acted as Secretary to District Committee who provided for over 20 Refugees.
- Mrs A H Heber Percy, Hodnet. Took an active part in supervising last mentioned Hostel.
- Miss Edith M Noel-Hill, Cliffe House, Ruyton-XI-Towns. Acted as Secretary to District Committee who provided for a number of Refugees.
- Mrs John Briggs, 54 High Street, Whitchurch. Wife of Bootmaker and took a continued interest in the work
- .Miss E Pearson, 23 Doddington, Whitchurch. Engaged in teaching – A most useful member of the District Committee.
At the end of the war the majority of the refugees returned home. With the return of British soldiers, some of them no longer had employment. The government also offered free one-way tickets back to Belgium, but only for a limited period.
A number of others, however, settled after the conflict and became part of the local communities. The Tracing the Belgian Refugees project, led by Leeds University, is hoping to trace the Belgians in exile and improve knowledge of this key, and often forgotten, moment in international history.